IIn March, when Boris Johnson announced a nationwide shutdown in response to the coronavirus pandemic, it appeared that Britain, For a long time a nation obsessed with its imperial past and military history, it had changed its concern for the well-being of its citizens. The government had accepted responsibility for the safety of individuals and their families, albeit more slowly than other European nations.
However, after all we learned during the pandemic about the dangers posed by a virus smaller than a dust mite, Johnson’s recent announcement of a £ 16.5 billion increase in defense spending over the next four years (beyond the commitment to increase the current £ 41.5 billion Budget by 0.5 percentage point above inflation) marked a return to normalcy. The new spending focuses on cybersecurity, artificial intelligence and military space capabilities. Johnson said he had made this decision “in the middle of the pandemic” because “the defense of the kingdom comes first.”
What does “defense of the kingdom” really mean? Johnson refers to “our people and our way of life,” but the dangers we face as a nation are not traditional wars: they are global crises such as pandemics, the climate crisis, and growing inequality, as well as security threats associated with terrorism and organized crime. Instead of spending on old-fashioned military defense, the UK should focus on “human security”, A version of security that begins at the level of individuals rather than nation states and considers existential threats of all kinds, from poverty to ill health. In practice, this would mean spending more on climate change action and development assistance, as well as forms of defense spending where the military plays a role in protecting and assisting citizens both at home and abroad. , not in wars.
But the government seems more focused on traditional military defense than on current global issues. Chancellor Rishi Sunak has announced a massive reduction in the country’s aid budget from 0.7% to 0.5% of GDP, a move that is devastating for people living in poverty and those in areas of conflict, and something that could well harm ours again. home security. And the prime minister’s recent promise to spend £ 12bn in a 10 point green investment plan it pales in comparison to Britain’s new defense budget.
The decision to increase defense spending was made before the Integrated Security, Defense, Development and Foreign Policy Review had completed its work. A likely message from this landmark review, expected to be released early next year, is that addressing global challenges to ensuring the safety of “our people and our way of life” goes far beyond military spending. Another likely conclusion is the importance of stabilizing and mitigating contemporary conflicts in places like Syria, Yemen or the Horn of Africa.
These “forever wars,” as they have sometimes been called because of their extreme difficulty in ending, are very different from the classic conflicts of the past. Not only are they fragmented and decentralized, involving complex networks that engage in both political and criminal violence, but they are both local and global in scope, and closely related to other challenges like terrorism and organized crime that affect us at home.
The UK does need the capacity to intervene in such conflicts within the framework of the United Nations, with the aim of protecting civilians, providing humanitarian assistance and reducing violence. But this is not the same as classic geostrategic military interventions of the kind undertaken by Russia, the United States or Turkey, which are destructive and can prolong violence. Interventions in conflicts abroad must aim to save lives, not wage wars, and must involve a variety of skilled workers, such as humanitarian agencies, health workers, human rights monitors and mediators. Development assistance is particularly important when it comes to these conflicts: it finances humanitarian assistance and can help people create livelihoods by providing an alternative to joining armed groups.
These types of intervention may include a role for the police and the military, but only to protect civilians, uphold international law, and create safe humanitarian spaces (in fact, the Ministry of Defense has established a human security center in military operations for this purpose). The military can serve as a first public labor reserve during emergency situations, helping to test for Covid, building emergency hospitals, or helping to build flood defenses, for example.
There is also the argument that spending more on high-tech defense areas is important to protect people at home and abroad. The UK is vulnerable to criminal cyberattacks, election interference and even attacks on key infrastructure. But it is crucial that these cyber capabilities protect privacy and human rights, and are defensive rather than offensive.
The same goes for space. The UK remains a member of the European Space Agency, which has developed capabilities to respond to humanitarian and human security issues, something to which the UK can and should contribute. But develop an independent military space presence in the form of the proposal “RAF space command”It is not only expensive and difficult, it is also dangerous: the militarization of space expands the borders where conflicts can occur.
There is a powerful case for increasing our spending on human security issues, especially in the context of the pandemic. This must include both action against climate change and development assistance. But Johnson’s motivation appears to be more to return to an era of gunboat diplomacy than to prevent and end violent conflict. In his words, he wants to end “the era of withdrawal” and strengthen “our global influence.”
This global influence has been greatly diminished by Britain’s exit from the European Union, where the UK played a key role in foreign security policy. Cutting development spending will further tarnish Britain’s global image. It is difficult to see how a vision for “global Britain” can be achieved through increased military spending. Indeed, what is needed to keep “our people and our way of life” safe is increased spending on human security, not on the destructive and anachronistic tools of geopolitics.
• Mary Kaldor is Professor of Global Governance and Head of the Conflict and Civil Society Research Unit at the London School of Economics
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